BERLIN, Germany -- The last remaining witness to Adolf Hitler's final hours in his Berlin bunker, Rochus Misch, who also served as the fuhrer's devoted bodyguard for most of World War II died Thursday, aged 96.
Burkhard Nachtigall, who helped him write his 2008 memoir, told The Associated Press in an email that Misch passed away after a short illness.
Misch remained proud to the end about his years with Hitler, whom he affectionately called "boss."
In a 2005 interview with The AP, Misch recalled Hitler as "a very normal man" and gave a riveting account of the German dictator's last days before he and his wife Eva Braun killed themselves as the Soviet Red Army closed in around their bunker in Berlin.
"He was no brute. He was no monster. He was no superman," Misch said.
Born July 29, 1917, in the tiny Silesian town of Alt Schalkowitz, in what today is Poland, Misch was orphaned at an early age. At age 20, he decided to join the SS — an organization that he saw as a counterweight to a rising threat from the left. He signed up for the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, a unit that was founded to serve as Hitler's personal protection.
"It was anti-communist, against Stalin — to protect Europe," Misch said. "I signed up in the war against Bolshevism, not for Adolf Hitler."
But when Nazi Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Misch found himself in the vanguard, as his SS division was attached to a regular army unit for the blitzkrieg attack.
Misch was shot and nearly killed while trying to negotiate the surrender of a fortress near Warsaw, and he was sent to Germany to recover. There, he was chosen in May 1940 as one of two SS men who would serve as Hitler's bodyguards and general assistants, doing everything from answering the telephones to greeting dignitaries.
Misch and comrade Johannes Hentschel accompanied Hitler almost everywhere he went — including his Alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden and his forward "Wolf's Lair" headquarters.
He lived between the Fuehrer's apartments in the New Reich Chancellery and the home in a working-class Berlin neighborhood that he kept until his death.
"He was a wonderful boss," Misch said. "I lived with him for five years. We were the closest people who worked with him ... we were always there. Hitler was never without us day and night."
In the last days of Hitler's life, Misch followed him to live underground, protected by the so-called Fuehrerbunker's heavily reinforced concrete ceilings and walls.
"Hentschel ran the lights, air and water and I did the telephones — there was nobody else," he said. "When someone would come downstairs we couldn't even offer them a place to sit. It was far too small."
After the Soviet assault began, Misch remembered generals and Nazi brass coming and going as they tried desperately to cobble together a defense of the capital with the ragtag remains of the German military.
He recalled that on April 22, two days before two Soviet armies completed their encirclement of the city, Hitler said: "That's it. The war is lost. Everybody can go."
Following the German surrender on May 7, Misch was taken to the Soviet Union where he spent the next nine years in prisoner of war camps before being allowed to return to Berlin in 1954.
He reunited with his wife Gerda, whom he had married in 1942 and who died in 1997, and opened a store.
At age 87, when he talked with the AP, Misch still cut the image of an SS man, with a rigid posture, broad shoulders and neatly combed white hair.
He stayed away from questions of guilt or responsibility for the Holocaust, saying he knew nothing of the murder of 6 million Jews and that Hitler never brought up the Final Solution in his presence.
"That was never a topic," he said emphatically. "Never."